Easter 3C sermon 2016
Grace and peace to you in the name of our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Pulpit pop quiz, my friends! Who can remind us all what last week’s gospel story was?
Yes indeed! Doubting Thomas.
Now, if you will recall, Jesus gets a lot done in that last half of chapter twenty. He appears to the disciples, not once, but twice. He breathes upon them and gives them the Holy Spirit. He wishes them peace. He sends them, as he had been sent. And the gospel writer tells us that Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, but these were written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing, you may have life in his name, period, end of sentence, full stop.
Well. Where do you go from there?
What do you do after Jesus has risen from the dead, appeared among you (twice), given you the Holy Spirit, and sent you out just as he had been sent?
Well, clearly, you go fishing.
It’s not entirely clear, actually, what brought the disciples out of Jerusalem and up to Tiberias. Tiberias was a town in Galilee, where they were all from. It was a long way away from Jerusalem. They could have been going into hiding for a while, or taking a sabbatical, or bringing the good news up to spread in the towns where Jesus first began his work. The text doesn’t get specific.
But I’m going to make a bit of a leap here, and suggest that maybe they went to Galilee because they weren’t sure what being sent meant. Because Simon Peter was a fisherman, and when he says to the others, “I’m going fishing,” that sounds like the decision of a man who just doesn’t know what else to do, and so he does the only thing he really feels sure of. So he goes back to the nets that he dropped the moment that Jesus asked him to, three years earlier. The other disciples say, “We’re coming too.”
And though they fished all night, all they caught was seaweed. And then, as they sun rose, they saw someone standing on the beach. And this someone tells them to cast the net on the other side of the boat.
And when they do, we get a replay of a moment that happened three years before, when Jesus first called Peter, James, and John. The nets were filled almost to breaking with fish, so many fish that they struggled to get them to shore.
And the moment that happens, the disciples know who that person on the shore is. And Simon Peter forgets about the catch, forgets about his fellow disciples, forgets about common sense, apparently—because who puts on more clothes to go swimming?—and dives straight into the water to get to Jesus.
And as he comes up to Jesus on the shore, I wonder if his heart shrank a little within him. Because Jesus was cooking breakfast over a charcoal fire.
Do you know the only other place the word for “charcoal fire” appears in the entire Bible? In John chapter 18, the night of Jesus’ trial. That was the kind of fire by which Peter was huddled with the servant-girl and the soldiers. That was the fire by whose light and warmth Peter denied Jesus three times.
So as Peter races up the beaching, dripping wet and utterly without fish, I imagine he gets as far as the smell of that fire before he stops dead, and all the memories of that awful night wash over him.
But Jesus graciously invites him, and the other disciples, to breakfast. By the way, I find this detail pretty awesome. This means that we will still eat breakfast in the resurrection, people.
Anyway. Halfway through breakfast, Jesus turns to Peter, and asks him, “Do you love me?”
And Peter says, “Yes, you know that I love you.”
And Jesus says, “Feed my lambs.”
Again, later, almost as though he’s forgotten, Jesus asks again: “Do you love me?”
And Peter says, “Yes, you know that I love you.”
And Jesus says, “Tend my sheep.”
When it comes up a third time, I can imagine the crumpled look on Peter’s face. “Peter, do you love me?”
And Peter says, “Yes, Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.”
And Jesus says, “Feed my sheep.”
Three times, Jesus asked. Three times, Peter got to affirm that yes, he loved Jesus. Once for each denial.
According to the Gospel of John, throughout the resurrection event, no one had been more eager to believe that Jesus was raised, except, perhaps, Mary Magdalene. It’s Peter who runs to the tomb on that fateful morning, and comes back, not totally sure what to believe. Peter is there for the two appearances Jesus makes to the disciples in the locked room. But it’s also Peter who goes back to fishing. Who doesn’t know quite what to do with himself, even after he believes that Jesus has risen from the dead.
It’s easy to wonder what on earth Peter was waiting for. He’d seen Jesus! He believed he was risen! He knew he was the Son of God! He received the Holy Spirit! Jesus had told him along with the others, “I’m sending you!” What was the guy waiting for, a gilded invitation?
But on the other hand, I also totally get Peter’s reluctance to share the good news. Because it’s one thing to believe that Jesus is risen. It’s another to believe that he has risen, and he’s also forgiven you for denying him three times.
I think that’s where Peter’s stuck. It isn’t that he doesn’t believe the good news. It’s just that he doesn’t believe it’s for him. He had his shot as a disciple, and he failed. The good news was for people who didn’t need forgiving.
One of the most beautiful things about this passage is that Jesus never comes straight out and forgives Peter. Instead, he leads Peter along the way of forgiving himself. He guides Peter into rewriting the ending to his story. Instead of being the guy who denied Jesus three times, Peter gets to be the guy who loves Jesus more than all of these.
There are sins that I have trouble forgiving myself for. The stuff that replays itself on bad nights when I can’t sleep. There are ways in which I’ve told Jesus that I don’t, in fact, love him. Times when I had a friend who was hungering for some compassion, and I didn’t feed them. Times when someone’s reputation had been stripped away, and they needed someone to cover them, and I didn’t step up. Times when someone was asking me to be with them in their hour of need, and I didn’t go. And just as often—perhaps more often—there are times when my own self cries out for compassion, forgiveness, and grace, and I don’t give it.
There are a thousand ways to deny Jesus, and I know more of them than I care to count.
And when I think about that, really think about that, it seems impossible to believe that Jesus could keep loving and choosing me, could keep calling me as a disciple, could keep making me Christ’s own body in the world. There has to come a point at which he simply says, “Clearly, she’s not cut out for this work. Give her a job in filing or something instead.”
But there doesn’t. Jesus is always choosing us. Jesus is always calling us. Jesus is always rewriting the script, turning our endings into beginnings.
And that’s what Peter learns in today’s gospel.
And what Peter learned that day on a beach over breakfast with Jesus, he then lived in a life of fervent discipleship. “Feed my sheep,” Jesus told him, and that’s what Peter does. He goes back to Jerusalem and begins preaching, in direct defiance of the authorities. He ceases to regard his own well-being as the most important thing, and spends the rest of his life serving others in the name of Christ. Because of his devotion to the gospel, he died an early death. Tradition says that he was crucified in Rome, upside-down at his request, because he considered himself unworthy to die in the same way Jesus did.
His end was a beginning. Because of his preaching, his work, and his example, the early church survived a period of persecution. He was the rock on which Christ built the church.
And two thousand years later, here we are. Sheep who have gathered to be feed in this place, where Jesus gives us breakfast. People who long to know that God can take us, with all our denials and our shortcomings, and redeem us.
Well, blessed are we, for in this place, the good news springs from empty tombs and charcoals fires, the places where our greatest shame and our most absolute endings are transformed by the God of Easter into new life.
Thanks be to God. Amen.